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It’s Not About the Sport: How Reframing Changed the Conversation and Ended Impasse

Recently a couple returned to mediation with me, ostensibly to modify their Parenting Plan. The original Plan specified that they both had to agree on their children’s participation in extra-curricular activities. Now, two years later, they were at odds over whether their nine year old son could enroll in a lacrosse program.

Mom was opposed. This son was small for his age and already had experienced a concussion playing soccer. She was concerned for her son’s safety, viewing lacrosse as too dangerous for him. She acknowledged that she was not familiar with the sport. Nonetheless, she produced scientific studies in support of her position. Moreover, she insisted that their son told her he did not want to play lacrosse.

Dad, on the other hand, did not want to wait for his son to grow taller and stronger before giving him the opportunity to try the sport. He had located a local program tailored to his son’s age. Dad understood the sport, having played it when he was younger. He produced his own set of studies which supported his position. He insisted that their son told him he wanted to play lacrosse.

The parents had not shared their respective research before the mediation. They were not communicating with each other, except when absolutely necessary, and then not very civilly. To each of them, their own perspective was clearly valid. So, was their dispute fueled by their unstated concerns? Was lacrosse just too far outside Mom’s comfort zone? Was Dad seeking to
toughen up his son? Or, was something else in play?

Having worked with me before, this couple seemed comfortable exploring their concerns with me. However, a combination of joint sessions and separate caucuses was producing no movement until Dad articulated, in caucus– seemingly by accident –a simple game-changing insight: their son was trying to please both parents. That was how he was dealing with his parents’ distrust of, and poor communication with, each other. Dad agreed to share this realization during a joint session.

Now I had been given the gift of permission to assist them to reframe their dispute. What did they think was underlying their son’s choice to tell each parent a different answer, I asked in various ways. While they did not abandon their individual perspectives about lacrosse, they soon saw their dispute was not about whether the sport was appropriate for their son; it was about their
lack of clarity about how and why he made decisions and communicated with them. Mom and Dad agreed that they both loved their son, although each expressed that love differently. They agreed that what was important was not lacrosse, but their shared interest in helping their son strengthen his ability to make and express decisions that worked for him, not necessarily for his
parents. They understood that they would be helping him to learn a skill which would have lifelong benefit. They beamed with pride at their discovery of this realization. Impasse had ended. Now they were receptive to collaborating.

What ensued was their first real conversation about resources they might be able to employ in pursuit of their shared goal. These included a school counselor, therapist, and pediatrician. Mom and Dad decided to continue making joint decisions as to extracurricular activities on a case by case basis, and to consider sharing ideas for revising this method next year, based on
their experience during the coming year. Their brain-storming and joint commitment to help their son was a huge accomplishment for this divorced couple.

Ultimately, Mom and Dad decided the Parenting Plan did not need modification. What needed to change was their approach to their son’s healthy development.

                        author

Nancy Shuger

Nancy B. Shuger is based in Maryland.  After retiring as a trial judge in 2011, she launched her mediation business. Her practice is multicultural, focusing primarily on family, small business, workplace, and congregational matters. She is experienced in, and enjoys, working with self-represented parties.  MORE >

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